Florida Pension Chief Cleared of Ethics Violations

February 15, 2011 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - The Florida Commission on Ethics has dismissed a complaint against pension chief Ash Williams, finding no indication he violated conflict of interest laws.

The ethics commission said in a 10-page report that nothing in a complaint indicated that Williams illegally used his official position for personal gain or to benefit others, according to the St. Petersburg Times. To prove a legal violation, the ethics commission said it had to show that Williams’ actions not only conflicted with his public duties but that he was on “reasonable notice’’ that his conduct was improper, but the legal guidelines for pension investments are so general, the commission wrote, that “it cannot be said that (Williams) was on ‘reasonable notice’ that the decision to invest with Bayview was inconsistent with the proper performance of his public duties.’’   

The commission also said it has no authority to decide if the Bayview investment was good, bad or too risky.   

The newspaper said the complaint was filed by David A. Plyer, a retired engineer from Clearwater who has lodged ethics complaints against a number of high-ranking officials. Plyer said Williams misused his public position when he helped a Miami mortgage firm win a $100 million pension deal. The firm’s affiliate, Bayview Financial Holdings, was run by two investors of a New York City hedge fund where Williams used to work.   

Plyer based his complaint on articles in the St. Petersburg Times, which reported that Williams sought consideration from the State Board of Administration of investments involving at least three firms in which he had personal connections.   

As SBA chief, Williams manages the investment of $155 billion of public money for more than one million current and future retirees as well as hundreds of cities, counties, school districts and state organizations.  Williams led the SBA from 1991 to 1996, left for Wall Street, then returned to lead the agency again in 2008 (see Williams Running FL Investments – Again). Most of his time in the private sector was as an executive at Fir Tree Partners, a hedge fund firm. Two of Bayview’s principals, David Ertel and David Quint, also were investors at Fir Tree.   

According to the Times, Bayview, which seeks to profit from the mortgage meltdown and homeowners facing foreclosure, had made multiple efforts to land business with the SBA, but documents show the agency’s professional staff deflected the overtures from two Bayview affiliates until Williams received an e-mail from Andrew Fredman, an executive from his old firm who was a close friend of Bayview’s principals. Fredman also was an investor in one of Bayview’s funds, documents say.   Within weeks, Williams had invited SBA staff to a meeting with Bayview — and a risky $100 million pension fund investment was in the works.   

Neither Williams nor his attorney returned e-mail messages from the Times seeking comment, but Williams has said that the ethics complaint was based on false allegations and that he never used his public position to do favors for friends or business associates.